Donnie Kirkpatrick is back at East Carolina after three years as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at James Madison. He will have the same responsibilities with the Pirates.
Kirkpatrick was at ECU from 2005 to 2015, working for head coaches Skip Holtz and Ruffin McNeill.
The Pirates won back-to-back Conference USA championships under Holtz in 2008 and 2009. ECU topped Boise State in the 2007 Hawaii Bowl.
The Pirates defeated Ohio in a 2013 bowl in St. Petersburg, FL, when McNeill was in charge and won their last five games against ACC opponents North Carolina, N.C. State and Virginia Tech.
As receivers coach at ECU, Kirkpatrick helped develop future NFL performers such as Aundrae Allison, Dwayne Harris, Justin Hardy and Zay Jones.
At JMU, Kirkpatrick helped the program win the Football Championship Subdivision title in 2016. The Dukes were runner-up for the FCS crown in 2017 after opening the season with a 34-14 win at ECU.
“Eleven good years with the Pirates,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s great to be back. I had three good years while I was gone. It was a great opportunity. We had a lot of success and had a lot of fun, but, obviously, once you’re a Pirate, you’re always a Pirate.
“When the spirit of East Carolina calls, you’re going to be excited about that. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but that’s the fun part of it is getting in there and getting after it.”
The Pirates are looking to recover from four straight losing seasons.
Houston has winning record
The new coach charged with reversing ECU’s gridiron fortunes, Mike Houston, brought Kirkpatrick and much of the staff with him from JMU.
Houston’s record as a head coach at Lenoir-Rhyne, The Citadel and JMU is 80-25 with six conference championships in eight seasons.
“Mike has obviously got a fantastic record,” Kirkpatrick said. “I think the numbers speak for themselves. No matter what you say, this is a win business. There’s a lot of other things you try to keep involved in it. Those things are important, but obviously the overall structure is what it is. It’s a win business.
“I’ve known Mike a long time. He was high school coach at T.C. Roberson in Asheville when I first met him. I was recruiting the school over there. … I could tell he ran a great program over there.
” … When he took the James Madison job, Mike’s been a triple option guy. He’s really more of a defensive guy, I guess. He needed somebody that knew a little bit more about the spread, maybe the no huddle, some stuff like that. We got together and he offered me the opportunity. It was one of the best decisions that I could make because I go up there and we go 14-1 the first year and win the national championship.
“He’ll be someone the Pirate Nation will really, really love. They’ll like the way he does things. … There’s a lot of continuity (on the coaching staff from JMU). Hopefully, that will help us to get this thing going at a quicker pace. We all know each other for the most part. We all think alike.”
Run game emphasis
Houston has indicated there will be an emphasis on improving ECU’s running game. The Pirates averaged 129.7 yards per game on the ground during a 3-9 season in 2018.
“He does feel the run game is important,” Kirkpatrick said of Houston. “With a defensive background, defensive guys like for you to eat that clock up and keep them off the field, obviously. The game always evolves and it kind of goes through changes. Even the wide open offenses right now, the air raid guys, which I’ve obviously been a part of for a long time, things turn back around.
“You see everybody who’s pretty successful running the ball pretty well. Lincoln Riley, who I worked with — you look at Oklahoma and they’ve had back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners at quarterback, but they’ve run the ball very successfully. The running game is the quarterback’s best friend. … When you can run the ball, it’s a lot easier to throw the ball.
“When you can run the ball, you can close games out. You can protect the lead. You can put games away. … We look to do that. It’s something that we’re going to have to get in here and attack a little bit. … There are different ways to do that. We won’t just be a zone team as much as some of the air raid people have been. We’ll be a little more with gap schemes and some man schemes. We’re going to have to fit that to the personnel this spring as we see what we’ve got and what we can do well.
“Having Steve Shankweiler (offensive line coach) with us — obviously, Pirate Nation knows Steve really well — is a great feeling for me. To be able to rely on him to be able to get the guys up front ready to go so that’s going to be a good thing.”
Working with Ahlers
Kirkpatrick will be grooming quarterback Holton Ahlers for his sophomore season.
“I’ve known Holton since he was playing Little League,” Kirkpatrick said. “He was hitting the ball out of the park it seemed like every time at bat. I’ve known his family. He went to the same high school (D.H. Conley) that my kids went to, Molly and Davis. … We were recruiting Holton when I was at East Carolina. As young as he was, we were already having him over to games.
“The thing I’m most impressed with Holton is just the person. I know he’s a good football player and I’m aware of what he did in high school. I’m aware of what he did here last year. The thing that is most impressive is just his character and his leadership. When we all came down, the assistant coaches, we all came together from James Madison on Dec. 5. We pulled into town about five or six o’clock that night. We checked into a hotel and then came over to the office. Who was standing there waiting on us was Holton Ahlers.
“He greeted us, which I thought was a pretty impressive deal. It was later that night. He had exams. He had plenty of other things he could be doing at that time. He was there waiting. He just wanted to say hello and how excited he was. Every coach, not just me, kind of walked away saying, ‘Wow, I’d heard about this guy. He must be the real deal, too.’
“You see that and you see his interaction when we had recruits in December. What an active role he took, the returning starting quarterback, the big man on campus. Obviously, you don’t have to do those things, but he was helping recruit, not only offensive linemen and receivers. He was helping us recruit quarterbacks as well because you’ve got to have more guys. You’ve got to keep building to that depth. I saw that. I saw how those kids responded to him.
“When he speaks, when he walks in a room, he kind of draws attention, but, at the same time, a really, really unselfish guy. I’m excited about what he can do. I know he’s had some success running the ball and throwing the ball, too. We’re hoping to grow him into that position. We’re hoping he’ll mature and be able to do some things even better than he did this past year.”
JMU win at ECU
James Madison had 614 yards of total offense at ECU in 2017, including 410 yards rushing.
“It was kind of a weird deal,” Kirkpatrick said. “Obviously, you’re totally trying to win the game and do everything you can do to win the game. After the game, there’s a little bit of relief when you win each week because it’s hard to go out and win a game. … There’s joy, there’s happiness for the kids. It was a great start to the season for an FCS team to beat an FBS team. That was the only loss we had the year before was when we lost to North Carolina, the one FBS team that we played.
“The kids were excited. They enjoyed the environment. The only thing then was seeing some of the players I had personally recruited as the recruiting coordinator. There were the guys I had coached at the receiver position coming up after the game. They had really a devastated look on their face. You could tell that things were not good.
“It was heart-wrenching a little bit. I hated that and I felt the pain for those guys. I really hated what had happened to the program at that point. … With all that, there were some mixed emotions. … There was a lot of emotion in a lot of different ways.”
Goals for spring
Spring practice starts March 15.
“The big thing is for us to get out there and figure out what we are capable of doing,” Kirkpatrick said. “Who is capable of what skills and how they can fit what we do and start to form a little bit of a depth chart. It’s not all about just who the starters are. You’ve got to have great depth at this level of college football because it’s a long season. It’s a competitive season. Guys get banged up. Guys get injured. You’re only as good as the next guy that can step up.
“We’ve got to kind of figure out what we’ve got, what our talent level is. … It will all be within the structure of our offense. We’re not going to change or reinvent the wheel, but use particular parts of our offense depending on what talent and what skill you have and what depth you have. We’re concerned right now because we don’t have a lot of tight ends and we like to play with tight ends. If we don’t have that, we’re going to have to find other ways to account for that.
“That will be part of it. Another part of it will be just wanting to see the kids compete. That’s a big thing with Coach Houston and our staff. We really, really want guys to play hard. That’s not just a given. That’s a skill and that’s something that has to be developed. We want to see the guys compete. Every practice that we have in the spring will be very competitive, either between the offense and the defense or between the guy and another guy at the same position. Everything will be about winning and losing that drill that day. You’ve got to have competitors and we’ve got to find out who those guys are that will refuse to lose. That’s the type of mentality it’s going to take to compete in this conference.”
Developing toughness and team chemistry also will be objectives in the spring. The Pirates will have sessions in the morning because of the way classes were set up this semester by the previous staff. Kirkpatrick expects to return to afternoon practices for the fall semester.
“The staff has talked about how eager these kids are,” Kirkpatrick said. “I think they really want to get this thing turned around.”
Deja vu vs. Wolfpack
The first game in the Houston coaching era will be Aug. 31 at N.C. State.
JMU opened at State in 2018 with a 24-13 loss. The Pirates closed last season at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh on the short end of a 58-3 score.
“We’ll be at the same hotel,” Kirkpatrick said. “We’ll probably be doing the same routine as we did last year. We’re hoping for a different outcome. We felt like we had a great chance to beat them last year. … I know our players have that on their mind as to the last game.
“We haven’t talked much with them about the past anyway because that’s not important. You look at it to learn from it or whatever. It will obviously be an opponent that we and the fans are very familiar with. It’s a big rivalry, whether they say it is or not. It is.”
Family of coaches
Kirkpatrick’s dad, Don “Red’ Kirkpatrick, was a highly successful high school coach at Granite Falls and South Caldwell. He played for former East Carolina coach Clarence Stasavich at Lenoir-Rhyne.
Kirkpatrick’s son, Davis, finished his career as a pitcher for the Pirates last spring. The younger Kirkpatrick is now pitching coach at Brunswick Community College.